-->
Music

Tom Russell: Veteran's Day

A two-disc journey through the work of a great American storyteller in song.


Tom Russell

Veteran's Day: The Tom Russell Anthology

Label: Shout Factory
UK Release Date: 2008-10-13
US Release Date: 2008-10-28
Amazon
Amazon
iTunes

The title Veteran’s Day: The Tom Russell Anthology was probably chosen to serve as a reminder that Russell has been writing and singing his songs for over 30 years, that he has been celebrated and covered by fellow musicians and that he is a veteran. Really, though, the title only works as a reminder of Russell’s song “Veteran’s Day” and of how well he writes songs about social issues without seeming like he’s doing so. He writes songs about the country that are, more importantly, songs about people (in this case about a Vietnam War POW) who remember and forgot him and the WWII vets who received a different sort of welcome. The song still has a message to it (“Leave a light in the window tonight for Jimmy McGrew”) but also details scenes and people. And it’s actually more message-y, less human-focused than many of the other great songs that make up this two-disc chronological retrospective of Russell’s music.

Much of the set walks this way, taking on the USA, its problems, both historical and contemporary, by focusing on people. “US Steel” depicts a steel plant closing after 100 years through scenes of the workers’ last lunchtime meal at the plant, of family pain and of men drinking the pain away. “Manzanar” recalls the war-time internment of Japanese-Americans, starting with one man telling his story. The song affords its heavy-handedness because the facts of the matter are still under-recognized in the US. “Big Water”, with the great Iris Dement on backing vocals, provides a stirring tale of life on the Midwestern floodplains. “California Snow” looks at the human costs of immigration through the eyes of a border agent. With a few exceptions (most notably “Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall?”, a direct but timely dig at anti-immigration activists), these songs do not make political points. Rather, each chronicles times changing, the forces of old and new conflicting and the human impact of that.

Russell is also a pro at telling great stories, period. This set includes many riveting examples of storytelling through song. Several are portraits of people, fictional or real, and their stories, like “Kid From Spavinaw”, about a baseball player and his miner dad and “Isaac Lewis”, another father/son tale set in Wales. “Halley’s Comet” depicts Bill Haley breaking down at the end of his life, without fanfare. “Joshua Tree” pays tribute to Gram Parsons in an indirect, poetic way. “Throwing Horseshoes at the Moon” is a remarkable, autobiographical song, about Russell’s father, a gambler.

In some of Russell’s best songs, he draws on his surroundings -- he lives on the El Paso/Juarez border -- or taps into the greater mythology of the West. “Gallo del Cielo”, which has been brilliantly covered by Joe Ely and others, is a cockfighting story that efficiently tells a much larger story, about legends told across generations, the times when those legends fall apart and what that says about destiny, about humanity, about belief. “The Sky Above, the Mud Below”, an old-fashioned outlaw tale of thieves, carries with it moral questions and a foreboding atmosphere.

Another theme snaking its way through this anthology: love. The love songs here all seem to really be about freedom and connection and balancing the human need for both. In “One and One”, Russell and duet partner Shawn Colvin portray ex-lovers now in different states, living their own individual lives, wondering at the same time what went wrong. “Out in California” tells a similar story of separation from the perspective of the man on the move, thinking of his would-be lover’s new life in another state with another man. “Outbound Plane”, co-written by Nanci Griffith, depicts love, as always, leaving but always coming back: “You can walk away from love / But you’ll fall head over heels again.”

One of his strangest and most interesting breakup songs, “Touch of Evil”, connects a relationship dissolving with scenes and themes from the film of the same name. Russell, who has written so descriptively about the US-Mexico border, here sings of the “borderline between a woman and a man”. He who never paints love, or life, as a picnic sings here of “the touch of evil living in our souls”. The song is film criticism as well as storytelling. Similarly, the anthology ends with the cinema-referencing “Roll the Credits”, a new recording. Russell’s story-songs often beg to be referred to as cinematic and no doubt have been. Though some detours to France and the UK are abroad, the anthology, as a whole, seems a quintessential American film, with people of all sorts coming into view, living tough yet interesting lives amidst larger forces of constriction, destruction and deterioration.

7
Music

The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less
Music

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

Wars of attrition are a matter of stamina, of who has the most tools with which to keep fighting. A surprising common tool in this collection? Humor.

The name of the game is "normal or abnormal". Here's how you play: When some exceedingly shocking political news pops up on your radar, turn to the person next to you, read them the headline and ask, "is this normal or abnormal?" If you want to up the stakes, drink a shot every time the answer is abnormal. If that's too many shots, alter the rules so that you drink only when things are normal—which is basically never, these days. Hilarious, right?

Keep reading... Show less
9
Music

The Dear Hunter: All Is As All Should Be EP

Jordan Blum
Publicity photo via Bandcamp

Although All Is As All Should Be is a tad too brief to match its precursors, it's still a masterful blend of songwriting, arrangements, and singing that satisfies the Dear Hunter anticipation.

The Dear Hunter is undoubtedly one of the best—and consequently, most egregiously underappreciated—bands of the last decade or so. Aside from 2013's Migrant LP, every one of their major releases featured an ambitious hook; for example, 2011's The Color Spectrum presented nine EPs (consisting of four songs each) that individually represented a different sonic tone (in order: Black, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet, and White), whereas the five-part (so far) Act saga, with its genre-shifting arrangements, superlative songwriting, narrative complexity, and extraordinary conceptual continuity, is a cumulative work of genius, plain and simple.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image